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Ensuring Singapore's food security despite the odds

As with most issues that impact national security in Singapore, it often seems that the odds are stacked against us.

Ensuring Singapore's food security despite the odds

Organic vegetables are seen on growing towers that are primarily made out of polyvinyl chloride pipes at Citiponics' urban farm on the rooftop of a multi-storey carpark in a public housing estate in western Singapore on April 17, 2018.

As with most issues that impact national security in Singapore, it often seems that the odds are stacked against us. 

Food security — access to safe and nutritious food — is a challenge on several fronts. 

Singapore is a small city-state with limited resources, with only 1 per cent of land available for food production, and over 90 per cent of food is imported from an increasingly disrupted world.

The Covid-19 pandemic has further amplified the gravity of safeguarding food security. 

The city-state has been proactively planning for long-term food security through the Singapore Food Agency’s (SFA) strategy of “three food baskets” — diversifying food sources, growing locally and growing overseas. 

This approach has served the Republic well in securing a supply of safe food.

DIVERSIFIED SOURCING IS KEY

Singapore’s food importers leverage the nation’s connectivity and the global free trade environment to import from multiple sources in about 170 countries and regions worldwide. 

Should there be a disruption to any one source, importers are able to tap alternative food sources and ensure supply remains stable.

Lockdown measures brought about by Covid-19 underscored Singapore’s vulnerabilities to supply disruptions in food. 

It was not by luck that the Republic’s food supply remained stable and market shelves continued to be promptly restocked — it was the result of a deliberate whole-of-government strategy to diversify food sources.

To keep the nation’’s diversified food supply lines intact amid the Covid-19 global pandemic, SFA worked closely with the Ministry of Trade and Industry and Enterprise Singapore (ESG) to monitor Singapore’s food supply situation. Together with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, these economic agencies worked with like-minded countries to maintain open trade links.

LOCAL PRODUCTION AN IMPORTANT BUFFER

SFA drives innovation in local farms with the ambitious goal of producing 30 per cent of Singapore’s nutritional needs by 2030 as part of our “30 by 30” plan. 

To meet this goal, we need a holistic and long-term approach to space-planning, boosting agri-food technology and developing local agri-specialists.

To facilitate and support the establishment of high-technology and productive farms in Singapore, SFA tenders out land based on qualitative criteria such as production capability, production track record, relevant experience and qualifications, innovation and sustainability.

In addition, a masterplan for the greater Lim Chu Kang (LCK) region, spanning about 390ha of land, will be undertaken in consultation with stakeholders over the next two to three years. 

The redeveloped LCK agri-food cluster will produce more than three times its current food production.

Building on the above efforts to grow Singapore’s high-tech agri-tech sector, SFA will continue to partner with the Economic Development Board and ESG to attract best-in-class global agri-tech companies, as well as to nurture promising homegrown agri-tech companies into local champions and help them to expand overseas.

EXPLORING ALTERNATIVE, UNDERUTILISED SPACES

Urban food solutions are expected to play a key role in global food security. 

While there are progressive enterprises operating out of farmlands and industrial estates, some agricultural game-changers are also taking root in unconventional areas — indoors, on rooftops and in underutilised spaces.

SFA worked with the Singapore Land Authority to introduce an urban farm at the former Henderson Secondary School site, which was transformed into Singapore’s first integrated space comprising an urban farm, childcare centre and nursing home within a state property. 

The farm space within the site was awarded in May 2019 to social enterprise City Sprouts, and it has become a vibrant destination for the young and old to learn about urban farming and enjoy a relaxing day out.

Citiponics, the first commercial farm located on a multi-storey car park in a residential neighbourhood, harvested its first yield of vegetables in April 2019. 

In September 2020, another nine sites atop multi-storey car parks were awarded for urban farming. 

The successful bidders included proposals for hydroponic and vertical farming systems with a variety of innovative features, such as the Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain technology and automated climate control. 

These sites have the potential to collectively produce around 1,600 tonnes of vegetables annually.

TAPPING TECH

The Agriculture Productivity Fund (APF) supports local farms in their capability development and drive towards higher productivity. 

Through APF, SFA co-funds the adoption of farming systems to better control environmental variables, test-bed technologies and boost production capabilities. Between October 2014 and September 2020, a total of almost S$42 million has been committed to 115 farms.

The Covid-19 pandemic presented greater impetus to speed up local food production capacities. In September 2020, SFA awarded S$39.4 million to nine companies under the 30x30 Express Grant to quickly ramp up food-farm outputs over the next six months to two years.

With advanced robotic and digital systems increasingly being used in farming, Singapore’s vegetables farmers have also become innovative agri-engineers and specialists in their own right.

With support from the 30x30 Express Grant, urban farming engineering solutions firm Indoor Farm Factory Innovation will set up an indoor vegetable farm with a vertical integration growth system up to 8m in height in a fully controlled and pesticide-free environment. 

The farm will leverage artificial intelligence farming systems integrated with IoT monitoring, dosing irrigation and an advanced environmental control system to achieve optimum growing conditions all year round.

Seng Choon, a chicken egg farm that has been in business for more than 30 years, has also proved itself a modernist in its operations. 

The company uses a computer that scans eggs to ascertain if they are clean; while feeding systems, temperature controls and waste cleaning systems have been automated with SFA’s support.

Singapore’s efforts at ensuring food security would not be complete without support from consumers. 

To boost recognition of local produce among consumers, SFA brought the industry and public together to create a new “SG Fresh Produce” logo. 

Farmers have been using this emblem on their packaging since August 2020. A website was also launched to provide a trove of information on locally farmed food.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has led to import restrictions, it also helped to accelerate support for local produce.

With public support for local farmers and other key measures, Singapore can beat the odds in ensuring food security in this ever-evolving, ever-disrupted world.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Lim Kok Thai is the chief executive officer of the Singapore Food Agency. This is edited from an article first published in the January 2021 issue of Urban Solutions magazine, a publication by the Centre for Liveable Cities under the Ministry of National Development.

Related topics

food food security agriculture farm SFA

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